Old and New

There are many Christians today who read the Bible daily but rarely any book not written within the last 50 years. They may think they have a broad view of the world when their vision is seriously limited. We are all influenced by the culture in which we live, even when opposed to much of what that culture stands for, and if we only read modern books we will see things merely from the perspective of twenty-first century Christians living in a prosperous society, only half aware that there were probably as many martyrs in the last 50 years of the twentieth century as in the first three centuries.

I am not suggesting that we stop reading modern books, let alone abandon reading the Bible, but we must avoid thinking that the New Testament just appeared towards the end of the first century neatly bound in a handsomely illustrated volume or rolled in a thick scroll. The first Christians used the Old Testament in their worship; gradually the epistles followed by the gospels and other Christian writings began to be read during their services. Who decided what should or should not be read? How did the New Testament canon come into being? Practices varied from place to place until the end of the fourth century when the New Testament as we know it now was fixed, although the Church had begun compiling lists of authoritative writings from the second century, partly as a result of the Montanist heresy, Montanus claiming to have been freshly inspired by the Holy Spirit.

CS Lewis suggested (Introduction to the St Athanasius on the Incarnation) that it was a good rule to read one old book to every three new ones:

I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers .of an exclusive contemporary diet. A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against he great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light. Often it cannot be fully understood without the knowledge of a good many other modern books … The only safety is to have a standard of plain central Christianity … Such a standard can be acquired only from the old books.

It is a mistake to think that the classics of Christian literature are difficult to read. These masters are generally capable of expressing themselves so clearly that the ordinary reader can understand what they are saying, and they are certainly no more difficult than parts of the New Testament. The importance of reading the ancient authors, and some history of the Church of the first millennium, is probably even greater now than it was in C.S. Lewis’s time: more texts are available now – seemingly endless books and periodicals as well as the internet – that we are more likely to come across supposedly new ideas which are in fact just old heresies in new clothes. Every woman knows that if you keep your clothes long enough they come back into fashion. One could say the same for heresies.

Heresy is, as that distinguished Bishop of London (JWC Wand: The Four Great Heresies) tells us, bad theology. It is not necessarily bad religion, but an intellectual alienation from the main body of Christians, a failure to think with the mind of the Church. In the last two centuries many of the ancient texts have been rediscovered, mostly in monastic libraries, and translated. Many of them were not available at the Reformation. Today the laity are now encouraged to play a role in church government and we cannot do this responsibly if we are ignorant of the theology of the Church before the schism of east and west. This will be true particularly in matters of ecumenism. It is essential that we have an understanding of the period when no element in the structure of scripture, creed, episcopate and sacraments failed to be given its due attention.

When you are wondering what books to take on holiday do choose not just the latest books but some of the old ones too. Many of them are now available in paperback and they can often be found even more cheaply in second hand bookshops. If you are lukewarm about your faith, read St Ignatius of Antioch’s Letter to the Romans; if you doubt the doctrine of the Real Presence, read Justin Martyr’s First Apology; if you think you suffer from stress, that common modern complaint, read the Rule of St Benedict and learn how to organise your life more sensibly; if you have reservations about some of our bishops, find out how bishops behaved to St John Chrysostom; if you find it difficult to remain in the Church of England because you dislike so much of what is done there, read St Boniface; and learn from St Athanasius that hard lesson for the serious Christian that one has to be prepared to stand alone for what is right.

Jane Gore-Booth is a member of General Synod.